First, thanks to Charlie for the invite. Very stoked to be stopping by. It's been a whirlwind month of posts, celebrating the paperback release of my novel, God's War, in the UK (all three books, including Infidel and Rapture, are already out in the US). Very pleased to be finishing up my last two posts here at Charlie's place. Now, onto the good stuff. - kh
Stepping outside a bar in Durban, South Africa. It's hot; the kind of wet heat that clings to you so fiercely it feels like you're draped in a sweater. My friend points to a cloud of insects gathering under the street light, a humming swarm of winged visitors.
"Cockroaches," he says.
"But... they're flying."
"We have cockroaches that fly here," he says.
I stare back up at the swarm. Flying cockroaches, to me, were like something out of a bad dream, some loose worldbuilding tidbit that I'd come up with after a couple late nights trying to figure out how I could swap out giant cats for horses and put shapeshifters in a science fiction story without bothering to figure out where all the mass went.
Insects pervaded my entire life when I lived in Durban. I remember walking past a house covered from roof to foundation with plastic sheeting, getting pumped full of poison. The whole house, wrapped in a tarp and fumigated - just like that. No big deal. There were insects of every type, many of which I had no name for. I assumed, after a while, that every insect I encountered was just some kind of cockroach. I'd wake up in the morning and see one on my pillow. My books got tunneled through by wood boring beetles. A nest of... something... lived under my tub. Every time I ran the water they boiled out onto the bathroom floor. I called them baby cockroaches. It was just easier.
Those who've grown up in tropical or sub-tropical climates might find this level of friendly insect life mundane, but as someone who'd grown up in a temperate zone, the number insects trying to crowd me out of my everyday life was unsettling. It didn't help that the owners of the building I lived in were corrupt. The water was turned off several times when they didn't pay the bill, and in the year and a half I lived there, an exterminator only came by once.
I started to dream of bugs.
People ask all the time where writers' ideas come from, and of course the real answer is there's no one place. What we write about is pure filtered experiences - what we read, what we watch, and the lives we live - all shaken down a sluice and carefully panned for the choicest bits.
When I left Durban, the bugs came with me (perhaps not only metaphorically, but I try not to think about that). Sometimes when an idea takes hold of you, it insists on being seen through.
My preference for the fantastic in my fiction has always leaned more toward the unexplained - whether the work has spaceships or magic or some blurry combination of both. I don't need to know how everything works. In fact, I'd prefer not to. I want to figure that part out myself. I like to hold onto the sense of awe and wonder for as long as possible. Because once you pull back the curtain on the wizard and see it's just a plump little man spinning stories, it loses some of the fun.
So when I returned to the States and started looking at forms of magic I hadn't seen in fiction before - "magic" that I wanted to base in some kind of hazy, rule-based logic - I thought immediately of the insects. I started doing research, and found interesting instances of hornets used to sniff out explosives (and drugs, and all manner of other things). My setting featured a long, grueling war of attrition on a world with few large mammals and certain limitations on hard metals, and using insects to sniff out explosives instead of dogs seemed like a very useful potential tool. Now I just needed to figure out what sorts of people trained them. And what else they could train or manipulate insects to do.
Remote-controlled beetles aren't exactly far-fetched, so I knew I needed to go beyond that. One of the challenges of writing very far-future science fiction (or science fantasy, in my case) has, for me, been thinking far enough ahead that what you put on the page isn't obsolete by the time the book is published. I needed to fudge it. I needed to push it more toward the magic end, because it's the magic end that goes far enough out for me to feel safe in slapping it down, these days.
Insects have been used to inspire all sorts of technology, but what if the insects themselves were the technology? What if they had handlers, magicians, who gave them instructions on what to make and build, what tasks to perform, using pheromones, somehow? I needed an insect-based technology that just worked - without explaining so much it took away the wonder.
So I developed practitioners in the bug arts the way I would any other type of technology, where different people specialize in manipulating different types of insects. Very skilled general practitioners - who could use bugs to do anything from heal a grievous wound to deliver an instant message - were magicians. Those who primarily specialized in insect/pheromone based communications were com-techs. Then there were organic technicians and tissue mechanics, who worked on hybrid machines that had bug-driven organic parts supplemented with more rare and expensive components made from hard metals.
Once I developed the core idea - that the technology powering this world was insect-based - I had to implement it, and I did that by reimaging the way people lived and worked from the ground up. I wanted to capture that uneasy truce between people and insects I felt in Durban. It needed to feel completely natural that people were eating insects, using them as currency, and shooing giant, dog-sized beetles out of the trash bins every night. Insects needed to pervade every part of their lives. Lacking a robust population of mammals and reptiles, insects in this world took their place as pets, on the menu, and in the streets.
It led to passages like this, where a character pops the hood of her bakkie (a type of vehicle):
The bakkie's front end hissed open. Waves of yeasty steam rolled off the innards. Nyx wiped the moisture from her face and peered into the guts of the bakkie. The bug cistern was covered in a thin film of organic tissue, healthy and functioning, best Nyx could tell by the color. The hoses were in worse shape--semi-organic, just like the cistern, but patched and replaced in at least a half-dozen places she could see without bringing in a speculum. In places, the healthy amber tissue had blistered and turned black. She was no bug-blessed magician--not even a standard tissue mechanic--but she knew how to find a leak and patch it up with organic salve. Every woman worth her weight in blood knew how to do that.
And some everyday life that looks like this:
They drove past women and girls walking along the highway carrying baskets on their heads and huge nets over their shoulders. Bugs were popular trade with the magicians in Faleen. Professional creepers caught up to three kilos a day--striped chafers, locusts, tumblebugs, spider wasps, dragonflies, pselaphid beetles, fungus weevils--and headed to the magicians' gym to trade them in for opium, new kidneys, good lungs, maybe a scraping or two to take off the cancers.
When it was all over, and my protagonist took her last drink, I closed the book on the bugs for a while. I could only take so many flying cockroaches, and I suspect that's true of readers, too. But when people ask me how to build really different worlds, how to do something that hasn't been seen a lot, I challenge them to take a look at the wealth of their own experiences - whether that's a life lived through travel, or experiences gleaned from the page.
The most rewarding work I've done has been pulling up some of the darkest, most uncomfortable experiences I've had and transforming them into something magical or, alternately, terribly mundane. It's taking the world and turning it slant. Skewing the mirror, just a bit. Stepping a few inches to the left, when the world hasn't really changed, but your perspective is transformed.